Ethical Humanism as a Religion for Today

Khoren Arisian

As we all unhappily recognize, the leading ethical conundrum of our time is the ill-fated, pre-emptive war in Iraq. We have helped to make a complete hash of that nation, as if its people had not lived in sufficiently humiliating submission under a cruel and despotic ruler for the preceding thirtyfive years. Why go to war when you don’t have to? The answer to that question seems especially clear today: there’s money in it, lots of it. As an exponent of Ethical Culture, a humanistic religion founded in 1876 by the Jewish rationalist thinker Felix Adler (1851–1933), I ask: What perspective does my tradition bring to questions such as this?

From that viewpoint, President George W. Bush—who perfectly fits psychologist William James’s characterization of the born-again or “twice-born” personality, which, in its “second” life is often dogmatic, intense, and brittle—must be stopped. The president’s similarly minded cohorts who promote faith-based initiatives at every level of the U.S. government must be confronted. Such overt mingling of religion and politics goes completely counter to American tradition and experience. In a democracy, a religious minority—no matter how large or influential—has no moral, legal, or logical right to presume that it deserves special treatment. Majoritarian tyranny is still tyranny.

What can a liberal religious humanism offer as an alternative? Felix Adler spelled out the essence of the democratic premise that he held implicit in what would later emerge as a new typological category: “ethical humanist religion.” In his 1885 Sketches of a Religion Based on Ethics, he wrote: “. . . our religion differs from other religions as republicanism differs from monarchy. For us, the moral state, like the political state, no longer culminates in the person of a sovereign, and religion does not consist in loyalty to that sovereign. The moral law originates in the reason of those who are subject to it, and only because it is the utterance of their own reason are they bound to obey it.”

In a 1925 address, “Some Characteristics of the American Ethical Movement,” Adler put forward his concept of “the fire within,” a force that energizes ethical humanist commitment: “The desire . . . for a consecrating influence expressed itself in . . . the Sunday [meetings] which were marked by great simplicity . . . there is music as a kind of frame but the center of the service is the address, [the speaker’s object] shall be to communicate light and heat to [one’s] hearers. . . . Mere light alone . . . will not [suffice]. . . . The platform of an Ethical Society is itself the altar, the address must be the fire that burns thereon.”

The imagery of fire became central for Dr. Adler. It was certainly elemental for his early mentor, Emerson, who confessed that we humans were born “to walk on molten lava.” Well, if you’re going to do that, you had better step lively before the lava consumes you!

An anecdote reveals what the symbol of fire meant for Emerson. At age thirty, having finally come to terms with the untimely death of his first wife, Ellen Tucker—who would always be the great love of his life—Emerson decided that the Unitarian pastorate in his hometown was too theologically confining. He resigned and set sail for Italy. Upon visiting Naples, he was utterly mesmerized by the sight of Mount Vesuvius (still one of the five most active and dangerous volcanoes on earth) overlooking the city’s celebrated bay. It seized his imagination with the power of an epiphany.

For Emerson, being alive meant being on fire with the life force of the universe itself. Thus the “oracle of Concord” could logically conclude that “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us”—namely, the fiery passion that drives us to confront brute fact and deliver blunt truth to our friends and neighbors, to the citizens of our democracy, and to the world at large.

Having painstakingly emancipated himself from needless conventional constraints, Emerson was able to serve as an agent of emancipation for others. He founded no separate school of thought that would outlive him, thus revealing a confident modesty; instead, he was far more interested in helping individuals learn how to free themselves rather than relying upon others to do it for them. He would probably agree with Plato that one must be one’s own best friend. Since each of us is not only unlike everyone else but also a social being, one need never lack for good company in being by oneself. All of this is reminiscent of Adler’s own high regard for Aristotle, who once averred that, although Plato was a good friend, truth was still a better friend.

In marked contrast to Plato, who was something of a fantasist, Aristotle was a naturalist par excellence. He recognized that life on earth is imperfect, which is precisely what makes the experience of living a dynamic life infinitely worthwhile. All attempts to blend mythology and history, however ingenious or emotionally soothing, remain intellectual and moral abominations and, therefore, disingenuous. “You’re on earth,” playwright Samuel Beckett famously commented. “There’s no cure for that.”

Perhaps the most evocative treatment of this theme of the fire within comes from poet Stephen Spender:

I think continually of those who were truly great . . .

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history . . .

The names of those who in their lives fought for life

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre . . .

And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

Khoren Arisian

Khoren Arisian is senior leader emeritus of the New York Society of Ethical Culture. This essay is adapted from his address “The Fire Within: Religion, Prophecy, and Politics Today,” delivered on April 29, 2007.


As we all unhappily recognize, the leading ethical conundrum of our time is the ill-fated, pre-emptive war in Iraq. We have helped to make a complete hash of that nation, as if its people had not lived in sufficiently humiliating submission under a cruel and despotic ruler for the preceding thirtyfive years. Why go to …

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